HBO Review: Chernobyl

I’m almost certain the the most difficulty I have had already and will have had (*P.S. it was*) in writing this review was in finding the best featured image to capture as much of the gripping imagery and compelling, emotive nature that dwell in these 5 episodes. This miniseries is a prime example of why HBO has set themselves apart from the rest in the streaming realm. Chernobyl is an addictive masterpiece, and all the more credit to it for being rooted in history, because it depicts the events of the radioactive disaster with stunning detail and much accuracy. There is a lot of grief and loss and horror in each 60 minute episode that can feel like a giant weight around your neck, so my recommendation to watch this show also comes with a warning to take your time. One episode a day is probably enough, seriously.
I don’t really want this review to simply be a history lesson because you could just Google the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, officially titled the “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant” in honor of the first leader of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin, to find the facts and accounts of what happened on April 26, 1986…..dangit, sorry. Okay, I won’t make this TOO much of a history lesson 🙂 There are still varying accounts of what really happened to cause the nuclear disaster that day, but the show does it’s best to give an account that is based in facts and theoretical, while also somewhat fictionalized (because, you know…ratings and stuff). The widely accepted belief is that there was a combination of workers who were not well-trained enough to control the nuclear plant and a poorly designed reactor. Whatever may have really happened early that morning, the USSR honored 31 victims of either the initial explosion or death from acute radiation syndrome, most of them plant workers and first responders, in a monument that still stands today. However, the estimated long-term death toll from health issues caused by radiation poisoning range from 3,000 to upwards of 100,000. Despite efforts made to keep a lid on what happened and how much radiation was actually pouring out of the core, news spread quickly and there were several key players who assisted in both uncovering the facts and stopping the destruction, and that’s where Chernobyl truly shines in it’s storytelling.
The three actors whose character depictions shined brightest for me were Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mad Men), Stellan Skarsgård (Bootstrap Bill in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Dr. Selvig in the MCU), and Emily Watson (Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love).
1) Harris played Valery Legasov, a Russian chemist who led the Chernobyl investigation, and was given the role of protagonist in the miniseries. Legasov was vital to the work of discovering how much radiation was coming out of Chernobyl as well as in the safety of efforts made to control the aftermath. He wanted to make the truths of the disaster known to everyone, and was given that chance near the end of his life in a special meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which happened to occupy most of the final episode. Harris was brilliant in his delivery and portrayal of the timid chemist who stepped up when he was needed. The show begins with flash forward to his suicide and a tape recording of some of his work, which makes the finale hit even harder knowing that his victory was soiled with psychological distress over everything that occurred. As he says, “There was nothing sane about Chernobyl…even the good we did, all of it was madness.”
2) Skarsgård played Boris Shcherbina, a politician responsible for managing relief for the Chernobyl disaster, who also worked closely alongside Legasov. His moments on screen were never wasted. He made the most of every set of dialogue and his character was compelling to watch as he began as an antagonist and eventually found his way to help Legasov tell the truth behind what they found. Along with Legasov and many others, he was fully aware of their radiation exposure working so closely to the plant but chose to do everything he could to find a solution to the problems that surfaced in order to avert further disastrous consequences despite poisoning his body in the process.
3) Watson played Ulana Khomyuk, a character created by showrunner Craig Mazin to bring the vital role of women into the forefront of the historical drama. In a time of male-dominated positions of power, the Russian women were mostly behind the scenes working night and day in the medical and science fields. So Khomyuk was established as a nuclear physicist from Minsk who investigated Chernobyl enough to uncover truths. And she was phenomenal in the role, a true powerhouse. She was not the only female presence in the show, as Jessie Buckley, an up-and-coming Irish actress, also saw screen time in all 5 episodes playing a firefighter’s wife and giving us the perspective of an ordinary citizen experiencing the tragedy. Her scenes were sparse, but also hit that emotional button hard and often. There were a few other minor characters that also contributed to this, but hers is the hand pictured above.
Almost everything in these episodes was shot either at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or in a nearby hospital, and the efforts made to re-live those several weeks really paid off. In addition to the cinematography, the makeup and effects of radiation victims was nauseatingly beautiful (does that even exist?!?) And the enclosed sets were surreal. Everything was just so well done. Honestly, the show reminds me of another critically-acclaimed miniseries that aired almost 20 years ago and is currently also available on HBO, Band of Brothers. The veracity and storytelling is superb and I would be happy to give HBO $15 for one month to watch any miniseries that resembles the triumph that is Chernobyl. So all that being said, I will have another review coming up soon of the new Ari Aster film Midsommar as well as a review of the latest season of Stranger Things…just as soon as my wife and I find time to finish the last three episodes! Thanks for reading, cheers!

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